Run, rabbit, run: Barbara Vernon interview

`Bunnykins' is the most enduring design to have graced Royal Doulton china. Maggie Parham meets its creator, Barbara Vernon, and discovers why she has never received a penny in royalties

I am now in my 90th year. It's high time I went `upstairs'," says Sister Barbara Vernon with a distinctly youthful smile. She is spending the afternoon out of the convent infirmary, where she lives, and is sitting in a light, comfortable sitting-room looking out across Sussex fields.

Things have changed since the early Thirties when Sister Barbara first entered the convent. Visitors spoke to the nuns through a fine grille, designed to prevent both parties looking one another full in the face.

Such things were normal in those days, but it must, none the less, have been a painful experience for parents to visit their enclosed daughters for the first time. Perhaps it was partly a desire that the convent should not entirely possess his daughter that led her father, Cuthbert Bailey, chairman of Royal Doulton, to ask her a favour in 1934. A new line in nursery china was needed, and Cuthbert Bailey invited Barbara to design what was to become the "Bunnykins" range. He had recognised in her, since she was a child, a talent for drawing, and he knew that she loved animals, especially rabbits: "I watch them still from my bedroom window in the early morning." Her Reverend Mother, however, was discouraging about the venture: "She said she didn't want all her sisters starting their own `little things', and that I should keep very quiet about this."

So she drew and painted very late at night, by candlelight - for the convent in those days had no electricity - alone in her cell. Reverend Mother was unimpressed. With regrettable lack of foresight, she insisted that the community should not receive a penny in royalties from Doulton. But, outside the convent, Bunnykins was an instant and enormous success.

Finally, in 1950, Sister Barbara felt she had done enough. Under a succession of other artists, however, Bunnykins has continued in production to this day: the only Royal Doulton range to have endured so long. The original pieces, signed "Barbara Vernon", have become keenly sought collectors' items. But while the other nuns drink tea from Bunnykins mugs, Sister Barbara sips instant coffee from a plain mug.

"Medicine Time", 1937

The clear, crisp-lined water-colours Barbara Vernon sent home to her father were full of wit and minute observation and, perhaps, a slight homesickness for the cosiness of family life. She painted rabbits cooking, picnicking, fishing, dancing, kissing under the mistletoe. The father rabbits, bespectacled and pipe-smoking, were often based on her own father: one design for a breakfast mug shows a large rabbit hauling on his braces in the morning, just as Cuthbert Bailey had done. The mothers she dressed in blue, "in honour of Our Lady".

"Netting a cricket", 1937

Cuthbert Bailey knew that Barbara had a particular sympathy for small children, "I've always loved them," she says. "One of the most beautiful things in the world, for me, is the sight of a baby, still too young to speak, squirming with pleasure when he sees someone that he loves." And it was she who insisted, remembering her younger siblings struggling with their porridge, that there should be a picture at the bottom of each Bunnykins cereal bowl, to help children to finish their food.

"Proposal", 1937

Hot from the kiln, new designs were delivered straight to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret at the Palace, and Bunnykins china was soon on practically every nursery breakfast and tea table, not only in Britain but as far away as Australia and Japan. Sister Barbara was under constant pressure to produce new paintings: "Couldn't I try some ducks?" she asked Doulton, when Bunnykins had been running for several years. No, the answer came back, what the children wanted were more rabbits.

Original watercolour for "Wedding", 1937

One of seven children, Barbara Vernon had a succession of governesses, but never a drawing teacher. Of her talent, she says: "My father wouldn't allow me to have lessons or anything like that. He always said, `If you try to teach a little talent, you snuff it out. If you leave it alone, it will grow.'"

Sister Barbara Vernon

There was little time available to Barbara (pictured in 1929, far left, and on her 80th birthday, left) for private work: the nuns, in those days, ran a school, and, at the same time as observing the rigorous disciplines of monastic life, Sister Barbara was teaching six history lessons a day. But her devotion to her father was such that she could not have turned down his request: "I adored him," she says. "I would have done anything he asked." n

Suggested Topics
News
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

    £40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

    Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

    Design Technology Teacher

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

    Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes